Caged memories

The only time I worked in an office from, so to speak, dawn to dusk, was during the last war (the one, that is, between Hitler and nearly everybody else.) This is so many decades ago you might confidently suppose that I would have forgotten what it feels like to be cooped up in a little box of a room for anything up to eleven hours a day, with only one hour off in the middle to shop and have your hair washed and share a sandwich with a friend.

But I have not forgotten. Even if you are city born, as I am, it is difficult to go indoors and stay indoors all day long unless you are used to it. One may not be yearning for green pastures, for the sound of pounding waves, for dappled woods and brindled cows, for the wind on the heath, and all those other rustic delights; but nevertheless one misses the simple act of getting up and going out, albeit only into the London traffic.

For the first time in my life I fully, rather than only academically, realize how privileged and pampered I have been. It is true that writers are also trapped in rooms for long periods, but it is a self-imposed discipline, which is a very different thing to an enforced one, and it has opened my eyes, as nothing else could, to monotony.

Millions of people throughout the world work in offices, and it is hard to imagine how business could be transacted if they did not: but if offices cannot be dispensed with, it might be quite a good idea to make working in one for a couple of years compulsory for all adults. For certainly, since I sat fingering the paper clips and doodling on the blotter in a government office, I have been much much nicer, much much more sympathetic to bureaucrats. Remembering the noviews from grubby windows, the filing cabinets clanging, the telephones ringing, typewriters chattering, the tyranny of the In Trays and the Out Trays, the chocolate dadoes along the corridors, and everything the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, I now think twice before being uncivil to a Civil servant.

When pigeons strutted along the windowsills, an occasional dim beam of sun shining on their sleek plumes; when in the spring, the sparrows flew by with bits of straw and fluff in their beaks for nest-making, like prisoners the world over I cherished them, giving them crumbled Marie biscuits and sitting frozen as a statue with a silly grin on my face while they ate them. Symbols of freedom, of the great comings and goings of the world from which I was excluded, these emphasized the joys of liberty (for which, after all, we were fighting), and I reflected admiringly on those of my fellow workers who, unlike the birds and unlike me, were caged for life in these office blocks; and what is more, quite often whistling, quite often laughing as they carried out their prison sentences.

No, I have not forgotten. Try me with some absolutely idiotic, footling, crassly stupid piece of bureaucracy, and see if I have.

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